Julia Baylon, Rachel Rim, Carolina Guerrero, Hebbah Elokour, and Caelynn Hwang
If you’re a college student reading this, you are a key individual in the composition of the Gen Z identity. Gen Z, today’s 18-23-year-olds, is defined by its fervent slang usage as well as its notorious association with and attachment to technology. Commonly used components of technology in Gen Z include social media platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, and Discord. This study investigates the relationship between the two variables of time exposed to social media and slang-impacted conversational speech style. As slang rapidly evolves to shape communication and accommodate the construction and expression of individual identity, we begin to ponder, where does this language style come from, and to what extent does it influence our diction? Through conversational analysis and survey/questionnaire conduction, we hope to understand the explicit impact of social media on conversational slang and whether or not the results support our hypothesis, which argues that greater usage of slang on the internet and/or overall internet presence will result in a higher frequency of slang used in real life.
Our burning question
In a direct relationship with the evolution of social speech, internet slang has transformed from being a marked informal language style to an everyday form of communication. Internet slang influences both the communicative behavior that individuals in society practice along with their daily usage of language. Previous research on first language acquisition reveals that exposure to the respective language is a crucial component to the extent of production ability. Implementing the same argument, we hypothesize that exposure to the internet, where there is an abundance of slang, will affect the frequency that internet-users produce slang in conversation. This study ultimately seeks to understand our proposed research question that asks: Does the time exposed to social media affect an individual’s conversational speech style and does this influence bleed into their different social media platforms varying informality?
How did we approach this?
In this study, undergraduate university students will be the target population; the age range is between 18 to 22 years old. Data collection will occur in two parts, first, case studies of three to four recorded conversations, each at least 15 minutes long, will be observed to determine the frequency of slang words used by each participant. The latter half of the data collection will comprise a self-report survey, in which the participant will disclose their social media, respective user handle, and average screen time for each platform. The survey will then prompt participants to reflect and report individual uses of abbreviations, acronyms, and other slang. It concludes with a free response question of whether they think that internet slang influence has a positive or negative impact on speech.
Ultimately, we aimed to examine any correlations between screen time, app usage, self-reported analyses of slang used in real life, and actual usage of slang in real life. The participants involved in this study were unaware of the purpose of the study beforehand, as well, to elicit as natural-sounding conversation as possible. Furthermore, the participants were all friends of the co-authors, to hopefully eliminate any biases potentially introduced by the onset of an “interview-like” setting. The participants were all also friends of the co-authors since during quarantine we were admittedly unsure how to go about encountering people we didn’t already know and recording natural conversations between them.
We asked individuals if they used Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. If they answered “yes”, they reported their average weekly screen time based off their devices’ reports or guestimate.
We asked the participants if they used any other socials not mentioned in the survey and, if the did, to list them and report their screen time.
Each of the 10 subjects was asked to assess whether they used Internet slang in their spoken language. The results are displayed here in this pie chart, with the overwhelming majoring responding “yes.”
Each of the 10 subjects was asked to assess whether they substituted words in their spoken language. Results appear to be mixed, but again with the majority indicating that they do so at least “Sometimes.”
Although Subject A(she/her) had a pretty high average screen time (see Figure 1), the frequency of internet slang used in speech and posts is very little. Looking through her different social media platforms we found that in 2020, 0% of her Instagram posts, 0% of her LinkedIn posts, and 2.5% of her Twitter posts contained slang. About 45-55 minutes of recorded speech were collected for Subject A; this data was collected in the form of a phone call with a friend and the conversation topics were school, quitting a part-time retail job, a trip to a museum, and apartment life. The results showed very little slang used (3 instances) in the form of emphasized agreement. When the friend expressed being happy living away from home and great dislike at going home for long periods of time, Subject A said “Facts! Period.” There was just one other instance of internet speech used but it was within the same conversation. While analyzing the recorded speech, we were surprised that, in the conversation about the job she hated and quit or the conversation about her trip to a museum, she did not use any slang. The tone of the first was annoyed/frustrated, while the second was very emotional and exciting. However, the Subject used the slang when the tone of the conversation was more neutral; perhaps it was the realization of the neutrality and therefore it was an effort to make the conversation more lively, or it just so happens that she thinks moving out and getting an apartment was the best decision of her life and gets excited when others feel the same. The interesting part was that after the recording was taken and the nature of the experiment revealed, Subject A laughed and expressed that she gave us a lot of material but was surprised when informed that she had only used slang 3 times. This overestimation of slang was seen among the other participants as well (see Figures 3 and 4). In the post-conversation survey, when asked if the influence of internet slang had a positive or negative effect, she answered,
“I think a little bit of both. It’s fun to use and say when with friends or in public. It also helps to reduce tension in conversations or with strangers. However, it is embarrassing and worrisome when people only speak like that or use the slang in essays, emails, etcetera.”
Additionally, Subjects E(he/him) and H(he/him) were also of note due to their significant presence on gaming platforms such as Discord (see Figure 2). During roughly 17 minutes of recorded speech, we were surprised to learn that there was little slang used (sick made an appearance a few times, as well as the occasional expletive), given that the gaming culture has evolved to contain speech community-specific language, which was confirmed in the post-conversation study and their Discord posts. Although their slang was not as active in their other social media platforms, Subject E had 68.7% of posts show slang and Subject H had 31.8% of posts show slang on their Discord (ACM Studio). This large difference between them can be attributed to Subject H’s position of co-presidents of ACM Studio, so his posts tended to be announcements, therefore, a bit more formal. The context of the conversation was generally relaxed and took place while cooking dinner. The topics of conversation strayed away from gaming topics, as there was a third individual present (not included in the study, as she is a co-author of this blog) who isn’t as big in the gaming community. Instead, the conversion-focused on classes, general Instagram-related topics, career focuses, and the like. However, in the post-conversation “debriefing” survey, the participants indicated a higher usage of gamer slang when talking to other gamers/about gaming-related topics. This included words such as pog, gg, F (..to pay respects), and broken (as in someone or something who is unfairly overpowered). As was discovered with Subject A, Subjects E and H also overestimated the extent to which they used slang in their everyday speech, indicating on the post-conversation survey that they believed their speech to “often” or at least “occasionally” use slang words.
The larger sociolinguistic picture
When trying to rationalize how little slang was used by the subjects, the words of sociolinguist Vera Regan came to mind. During her TEDxDublin, “What your speaking style, like, says about you” talk, she discusses how people’s language reflects their values, their goals, and their perception of themselves (2014). So, although Subject A is constantly exposed to internet slang, she will only choose the words that best represent her, as she is right now and who she wants to be in the future. As researchers, it highlighted for us how language is not only a tool for communication but also a form of creative expression that can hint at identity markers (like where we work, where we are from, our interests, etc.) like our style and choice in clothes.
In conclusion, throughout our study, we came to three main observations. The first observation states that some participants may have overestimated the extent to which they use slang in their speech. According to Kim and Ra, a higher frequency of the use of slang in one’s speech might be highly correlated to the limited means of communication that is available to reflect or express emotions, whether it is in written text or on social media (Kim and Ra, 2003). On the other hand, in real life, conveying emotions can come in the forms of facial expressions, voice tones, etc. Future studies investigating the effect of the use of emojis and uppercase letters would be interesting and may be useful to expand on the topic. Based on the data that we collected, our second observation stated that gender has little to no observable variance in our results. Our last observation indicates the conclusion that the topic of the conversation only seems to apply to the usage of speech in specific contexts. For instance, the speech observed of participants during playing a certain online game has sparked specific slang used in that specific game or common around social media platforms.
For future direction, it would be interesting to perform a study relating to specific speech communities. Our study unintentionally tapped on the gamer community, and an in-depth study on the usage of gamer lingo exclusively, correlated to the context in which it’s used (both online and in real life) could provide more detailed insight.
We would like to acknowledge everyone who participated in our study, especially the conversation participants who, after agreeing to participate, were told: “We’re gonna record our conversation for a bit. Don’t worry about it, okay? And no, sorry, we can’t tell you why until after. Just talk normally.” and then had to deal with the resulting confusion for a few minutes after.
An H. Kuppens (2010) Incidental foreign language acquisition from media exposure, Learning, Media and Technology, 35:1, 65-85, DOI: 10.1080/17439880903561876
Kim Y.S., Ra DY. (2003). Constructing an Internet Chatting Dictionary for Mapping Chatting Language to Standard Language. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2713. DOI: 10.1007/3-540-45036-X_72
TEDx Talks. (2014, November 21). What your speaking style, like, says about you | Vera Regan | TEDxDublin [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/jAGgKE82034